Expect discomfort on the new Showtime variety show Ziwe, which just premiered on Sunday, May 9. On her wildly popular YouTube and Instagram programs, Ziwe Fumudoh—who typically goes by her first name only—created squirm-inducing, can’t-look-away moments when she asked white guests Rose McGowan and Alyssa Milano the simplest of questions: How many Black friends do you have? And why do you hate Asian women? It was all in good fun, and viewers experienced a sort of cathartic relief not to be in the hot seat themselves. The uncomfortable pleasures continue on Showtime with guests like Fran Lebowitz, whom Ziwe asks, “What do you hate more, slow walkers or racism?” and a faux commercial for an American Girl line of dolls “inspired by the wives of some of history’s most important colonizers.”
When Ziwe, 28, was growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and one of the few Black kids at her private boarding school, she found herself on the receiving end of all sorts of similarly unwelcome questions. Why don’t Black people pull up their pants? What’s up with rap? What kind of name is Ziwe?
“I would come to my parents and be like, ‘Why wasn’t I named Kelly or Ashley or something normal?’” she recalls. “And they were like, ‘This is a normal name where we’re from.’”
Here, she talks about the new Showtime gig, her childhood, and the weirdest question she’s ever been asked.
On the show, you have a music video called “Stop Being Poor.” Were you ever poor, and if so, when did you stop being poor?
I don’t think I ever stopped being poor. I don’t own any assets, honestly. The song is made for the majority of Americans who would suffer if they stopped working for six months, and that’s just about everybody, especially during the pandemic. We were seeing some of our most affluent billionaires become richer as Americans really struggled to put food on their tables. I was lucky enough to have the privilege of working during the pandemic, but if the pandemic had happened at any other point in my career, I would have really worried about how I was going to be able to afford rent.
You ask your guests a lot of pointed questions about race. What’s the weirdest question you’ve gotten about race?
Someone asked me if I was worried that my work would not be topical when the tide about caring about race was over. That was kind of the implication of the question. There are comedians who talk about family life, comedians who use puppets to communicate, comedians who talk about airplanes, and they’re never asked whether their comedy will age. So the idea that my comedy, which is based on race, which has existed in the United States since the dawn of this country, will ever age out of the public discourse—that was the most absurd question that I’ve ever gotten.
You don’t seem to mind making people uncomfortable. What makes you uncomfortable?
I feel uncomfortable perpetually. But I’m OK with sitting in that discomfort. When I’m talking to a guest and I’m asking them a question about race and I watch them squirm, I feel uncomfortable, too. But that discomfort is natural, and I’ve been having these conversations since before there was a camera pointed in my direction. I went to predominantly white schools where I was the only Black person in the room, where I was 14 and had to speak for an entire community. And so I’m just trying to parent my inner child that felt really angry for a long time for being in those situations.
You’ve gone from Instagram videos to getting your own Showtime series. Do you worry that you won’t be able to do everything you used to do?
No, not at all, because now I have such a bigger budget! I’ve been shooting music videos for years, but I could never do a music video on the scale of “Stop Being Poor” before this. And now I have Fran Lebowitz sitting across from me. That’s not an interview that could have happened before Showtime. And as far as missing the DIY aspects of Instagram Live, I still have an Instagram.
What were you like as a kid?
I had a lot of energy. I always asked a lot of questions, and that would get me in trouble sometimes. And I cried a lot! As a child, I was really sensitive.
What would you cry about?
I would cry about everything. Once I watched this B movie called Double, Double, Toil and Trouble with Mary-Kate and Ashley, and I cried throughout it because I was so sad that the twins were separated. I’m just really, really sensitive to other people’s emotions, honestly.
Do you ever marvel at how far you’ve come?
I never would have thought that I would be in this position a year ago. I was this little girl from Lawrence, Massachusetts, whose parents are immigrants from Nigeria, whose grandmother starved to death in her village. There’s no world you can conceive where this would be the direct line to the person that I’ve become. I just hope that I can give people a sense that anything they want to achieve is possible.
A lot of actors want to sing and dance but never get the chance. Is that why you created your own variety show, so you could do whatever you wanted?
Yes. It’s such a scam. I get to make everyone watch me sing and dance and interview people and act in sketches that I write and help write and star in. So I’m like, wow, I’m the luckiest person in the world.